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Three couples, three kisses in the Durham courthouse

Jarinette Gonzalez and Yeison Reyes gazed into each other’s eyes and drew closer.  They had just been married by Durham County Magistrate Aminah Thompson, and Gonzalez had a big smile as their lips touched. For a wedding kiss, though, it was surprisingly short. Just a quick smooch.

Ivonne Ardon and Jose Hernandez opted for more choreography – grasping hands in a four way knot. But the kiss itself was just a peck.

And then Henry Cruz and Bessy Zaldivar. Wow. They were dressed casually, the bride all in black (a blazer and slacks plus leather booties) and Cruz in white canvas shoes and a navy button-down with fine polka dots. 

But their kiss was the most spirited. They were giddy as Zaldivar put her hands on the sides of Cruz’s head and stretched her fingers into his wavy dark hair. Their puckered lips met and separated – again and again and again. Four kisses to begin their life together.

Depending on the couple, the weddings in Magistrate’s Courtroom 3 are quick or passionate or sometimes even a little nervous.

Every weekday, magistrates conduct weddings at the Durham County Courthouse. Weddings continue during the coronavirus pandemic, with ceremonies held between 11 a.m. and 12 p.m or between 2:30 p.m. and 4 p.m. Couples don’t have to sign up in advance for the ceremony. All they need is a $60 marriage license. 

In the courthouse, couples can have a wedding on a whim.

Courthouse weddings are an eclectic mix – grooms wearing polka-dot shirts and brides in black. Guests capture the moment in iPhone videos and sometimes ask bystanders to act as wedding photographers. Some bring friends and relatives; others come alone.

For working-class Durham residents, courthouse weddings are efficient and inexpensive. Couples can knock venue planning, officiant selection, and the photographer search off their prenuptial to-do list. 

But the couples get what they plan and pay for. Weddings last about seven minutes with no frills: no music, no procession, no sermon, and no prayer.

Gonzalez and Reyes

It is Valentine’s Day and Thompson has brightened the small, windowless magistrate’s courtroom by wearing a bright red blazer. 

Reyes, 19, and Gonzalez, 23, stand shoulder-to-shoulder, ready for their vows. They met just five months ago when a mutual friend introduced them. Reyes is from Honduras, and Gonzalez is from Puerto Rico.

Witnesses record Jarinette Gonzalez and Yeison Reyes’s wedding on iPhone cameras. Photo by Kristi Sturgill | The 9th Street Journal

Gonzalez’s father Victor Gonzalez and witness Carmen Morales stand beside them, watching through iPhone screens so they can simultaneously record video and observe the vows. Gonzalez’s father lowers his iPhone camera for a moment and opens a small box. He hands Reyes a band for his bride. 

As Thompson continues her scripted Spanish vows, Gonzalez holds her left hand in her right, admiring the new wedding ring. 

After Thompson arrives at the “beso” part of the script – the kiss – she sits down and watches the couple smooch.

Wedding words

Thompson’s coworker, Magistrate Terry Fisher, says the Durham Courthouse does many of his weddings in Spanish. “I don’t know if it’s half, but we do a significant number,” he says. 

Some magistrates know the entire ceremony script in Spanish, while others switch to the language only for the “to have and to hold” section.

Though English and Spanish are by far the most common languages, Fischer also remembers couples who spoke Mandarin or Vietnamese. Sometimes the couple will bring interpreters, but that’s not always the case. 

“If you’re here for litigation, whatever language you speak, we can request an interpreter from the Administrative Office of the Courts,” Fisher said. “But those people are not available to us for weddings. So we just have to do the best we can.”

Ivonne Ardon and Jose Hernandez

Hernandez, 31, and Ardon, 28, are both from El Salvador. 

A delicate golden watch dangles off Ardon’s left wrist, and a new wedding band sits on her ring finger. Hernandez faces her lightly holding both her palms until Ardon raises her hand to admire the ring. Then they grasp hands in a four way knot.

Ardon tosses her head to move her bangs out of her eyes. She raises her chin and watches the magistrate say, “Puede besar a la novia.” You can kiss the bride.

They move their hands from the four-way clasp into a hug and lean in for a quick peck of the lips. 

Ivonne Ardon and Jose Hernandez hug after their wedding in Magistrate’s Courtroom 3. Photo by Kristi Sturgill.

Ardon’s hand slides down Hernandez’s pale brown coat. She turns toward her audience of five, and she smiles and claps. 

The couple and their friends file into the 3rd-floor hallway. They pose for a photo along a window that looks out on a cloudy downtown-Durham day. The slanted and pixelated photo is hardly picture-perfect, but it captures the community that will support Ardon and Hernandez in their new life.

In photo at top, Henry Cruz and Bessy Zaldivar embrace for their marital smooch. Photo by Kristi Sturgill | The 9th Street Journal

Jail worker died of COVID-19, but Sheriff’s Office won’t discuss

Durham County detention officer Alexander Pettiway Jr., 55, died last week and his death certificate is very clear about the cause of death: “COVID-19 / acute hypoxic respiratory failure.” 

But several days after his death, the Durham County Sheriff’s office won’t acknowledge why he died or give any details on where he worked or if he could have exposed inmates or other staff at the county jail. Spokesman David Bowser said the office can’t discuss the cause of death or details about Pettiway because it is a “personnel” issue and his privacy is protected under the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPPA). 

Bowser could only offer assurances that no inmates had tested positive for the coronavirus. He did not say if there had been any changes in procedures following Pettiway’s death. The sheriff’s office and the death certificate conflict on the day of his death: the office says Saturday, and the certificate says Friday. 

Last week, the Sheriff’s Office had announced that six Durham County Detention Center staff tested positive for COVID-19, but also declined to say where they worked or how much the workers interacted with others. 

The office’s lack of details doesn’t sit well with Durham defense attorney Daniel Meier. 

“It’s a huge frustration there is not more transparency,” Meier told The 9th Street Journal. “I get the reluctance to name specific names, but it is important to know as much as we can.” 

Along with others, Meier has to go into the jail frequently to visit clients via video kiosks, so he said it would be helpful to know if he had come into contact with any staff that had tested positive. He said he also is frustrated that the sheriff’s office didn’t directly tell local attorneys that staff had tested positive for the highly infectious virus. 

Meier said he and other lawyers are criticized for filings asking for relief for clients due to the dangers of COVID-19 in jail, but there isn’t enough information to know that the jail is safe. 

“They say it’s not [dangerous], but won’t provide the information for us to know that,” Meier said. 

Meier noted that Durham County Sheriff Clarence Birkhead did tell CBS17 last week that one of the six that tested positive worked with inmates and that “a majority of the six employees worked on the first floor of the detention center where intake and booking occurs.” 

But official statements from the communications office have lacked those details. The release about Pettiway’s death offered condolences and, without drawing a direct connection, pointed out the steps the sheriff implemented more than a month ago to slow the spread of the virus. 

The jail took steps to fight the spread of coronavirus on March 16, including banning all in-person and video visitation, using video kiosks for client meetings and having all first appearance hearings via video conference. The medical staff has been conducting COVID-19 screenings and making masks available to inmates. 

Amid coronavirus outbreaks plaguing jails and prisons nationwide, Durham County District Attorney Satana Deberry has worked to reduce the jail population. The jail is well below capacity with only 259 inmates out of a possible 736. Deberry also has worked to cut the state prison population by green-lighting modified sentences for some prisoners. 

“The Durham DA’s Office extends its deepest condolences for the loss of Senior Detention Officer Pettiway, a dedicated public servant. Our thoughts are with his family and the entire Durham County Sheriff’s Office,” Deberry told The 9th Street Journal via a spokesperson. “We will continue to review cases individually and make recommendations regarding release conditions based on public health and public safety.”

Bill Bishop’s former girlfriend asks for his homicide case to be reopened

Two months after prosecutors dropped charges in the death of Durham real estate developer Bill Bishop, his former girlfriend is asking authorities to give the case another look. 

Julie Seel says the Durham District Attorney’s Office was wrong to drop murder charges against Bill’s teenage son Alexander and has written a letter to a host of government officials, including Gov. Roy Cooper and Attorney General Josh Stein, calling for a new homicide investigation. 

“Bill deserves better than the horrible injustice of his death, the poor investigation of his death, the poor defense of his death, the poor decisions in his case to throw out evidence, and the poor choice to dismiss charges,” Seel wrote in the letter, which she posted on a Facebook page she called “2 Year Anniversary: The Unresolved Homicide of William “Bill” Bishop.”

Alexander told first responders on April 18, 2018 that he found his father unconscious in an armchair, his dog’s leash wrapped around his neck, with the dog still attached. Bill died a few days later. 

Almost a year later, in February 2019, Alexander was charged with killing his father. By October 2019, the judge tossed much of the evidence against him due to sloppy police work, but the case was seemingly proceeding as normal as recently as February, when prosecutors suddenly dropped the charges, citing insufficient evidence. 

Seel called for the dismissed evidence to be returned, saying it was “arguably wrongfully dismissed,” and said it should be taken to a grand jury outside of Durham. 

“The City of Durham deserves better than the many horrible injustices of their justice system, which is well known and ignored by many of the elected officials and people who have sworn to serve and protect, and yet do nothing,” Seel’s letter reads. “Do something, Attorney General Josh Stein, namely your job.”

The Facebook page has a photo of  Martin Luther King Jr. with the quotation, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere”) as well as links to news coverage of the case.

The Durham DA’s Office had appealed the tossing of evidence before it dropped the charges. 

In the letter, Seel also called for an investigation into why prosecutors dropped the charges. 

In December, Alexander’s attorney, Allyn Sharp, asked the judge to hold Durham County District Attorney Satana Deberry, Huelsman and Assistant District Attorney Beth Hopkins Thomas in contempt for failing to turn over evidence. Sharp also asked for the case against Alexander to be dropped. The charges left all of them facing the prospect of up to six months in jail. 

In a Feb. 3 letter, Sharp noted no hearing on the motion was on the calendar, so Sharp accused Deberry of dawdling in scheduling a hearing in which she would need to defend herself.  Three days later, prosecutors dropped the charges. 

Could prosecutors have dropped the charges to avoid the hearing?

“The timing certainly raises questions,” Daniel Meier, a criminal defense attorney who ran against Deberry in 2018, told the 9th Street Journal in February. 

In February, Deberry and Hopkins Thomas declined to comment on the timing of dropping the charges. Sarah Willets, a spokesperson for their office, declined to explain why the charges were dropped beyond that there was insufficient evidence in February and declined to comment further on Friday. 

Deberry takes steps to help reduce state prison population

Durham County District Attorney Satana Deberry is approving modified sentences for some state prison inmates to reduce the spread of the coronavirus.

Deberry’s office has agreed to modify the sentences of nine convicted drug traffickers, spokesperson Sarah Willets told the 9th Street Journal. Judges have approved the reduced sentences.

Deberry said in a news release that her goal is to identify inmates who can be “safely” released from prison. Her office will review those set to be released soon, convicted of non-violent crimes and those vulnerable to illness due to age. 

“Releasing individuals who do not pose a danger to the public can prevent them from being exposed in prison, create a safer environment for those who remain there, and help protect our entire community during this pandemic,” Deberry said in the release.

Deberry said coronavirus outbreaks in state prisons made this step necessary. Social distancing is not easy to achieve in jails and prisons, she said, which could allow the disease to spread quickly and put inmates, staff and their families in harm’s way. She also said inmates are more likely to have underlying health conditions that put them at a higher risk of contracting COVID-19. 

Deberry’s office is also mulling a few other motions for appropriate relief filed before the pandemic based on other issues, and intends to “treat these requests with the same urgency as those filed in light of COVID-19.”

In March, Deberry announced measures to reduce the county jail population. She moved to release or modify the sentences of those in the jail who don’t pose a public safety threat, are above 60 years old or have underlying health conditions. 

There are currently 260 inmates in the jail, according to the Durham County Sheriff’s Office, well below its capacity of 736. There is no target jail population that Deberry is trying to achieve, Willetts said. 

“We all have a responsibility to try to stem the spread of COVID-19,” Deberry said in the release. “Releasing individuals who do not pose a danger to the public can prevent them from being exposed in prison, create a safer environment for those who remain there, and help protect our entire community during this pandemic.”

Protecting jail inmates from coronavirus

Sheriff Clarence Birkhead announced Mar. 16 that due to concerns about COVID-19, all in-person and video visitation to the Durham County Detention Center is suspended. Advocates from the ACLU, Duke Law, and the Safe and Human Jails Project, among others, are pushing for more changes to protect inmates’ health. 

Recent arrivals to the jail will undergo an additional screening for symptoms of COVID-19, and attorneys will only be able to communicate with clients through video kiosks. All first appearance hearings will be conducted by video conference.

These changes will affect all 369 inmates currently housed at the jail.

AnnMarie Breen, public information officer at the sheriff’s office, said the medical staff at the detention facility spoke to detainees about COVID-19, including how the virus is spread and proper hand washing techniques. Detainees are responsible for cleaning their cells, she said, and the jail has an adequate supply of hand sanitizer, disinfectant, and other cleaning products. 

“We feel like we’re doing the most that we can to make sure that those CDC guidelines are being complied with,” Breen said.

District Attorney Satana Deberry released a statement Mar. 20 emphasizing that her office has taken steps to reduce the detained population. In February last year, the DA’s office implemented a pretrial release policy that recommends releasing non-violent offenders without monetary conditions.

“As a result of these policies and efforts by judicial officials, law enforcement officers and defense attorneys, the population of the Durham County Detention Facility is already well below capacity,” she wrote.

Last week, her staff began stepping up reviews of the jail population and working to safely release individuals, particularly those who do not pose a public safety risk, are over 60 years old, or have pre-existing health conditions that increase their risk of contracting COVID-19.

Attorney Daniel Meier said attorneys are still allowed unlimited visitation with their clients in jail, and he’s able to meet with his clients 24/7. Instead of meeting in the attorney booths, where attorneys can slide paperwork to their clients, they are now communicating through secure video booths. 

The jail has 12 attorney booths but only two video booths. Now that video booths are in high demand for attorneys to meet with their clients, there can be delays, Meier said.  

Breen said that remote visitation might even be slightly more popular recently. Usually, she said, because of the costs involved with setting up remote visitation, there was a small fee associated with the service. Right now, the service is free, so many people are taking advantage of remote visitation.

In a letter to the Chairman and President of North Carolina’s Sheriff’s Association, advocates recommended that sheriff’s departments across the state implement additional precautions due to the anticipated spread of COVID-19. Advocates have suggested several strategies to reduce the county jail populations and maintain humane conditions of confinement.

To reduce county jail populations, the signatories of the letter have suggested releasing all individuals over 65 years old, those who have medical conditions that the CDC considers vulnerabilities in this outbreak, pregnant individuals, and others, unless there would be a serious safety risk to the community. They suggested stopping arrests for low-level offenses and issuing citations instead of arrests. 

Within the jails, signatories have suggested eliminating medical co-pays, ensuring adequate access to cleaning supplies, and avoiding the use of lockdowns or solitary confinement as a way to contain a potential COVID-19 outbreak. 

The signatories have emphasized maintaining confidential access to counsel, which Durham has implemented through the video kiosks available to attorneys and bonding agents, according to Sheriff Birkhead’s announcement.

“I’m not worried because, fortunately, we’ve got a very proactive defense bar. The DA’s office has stepped up and is working with us — so are the judges, the sheriff’s department,” Meier said. “I don’t know how other counties are doing it, but Durham is working together.”

Durham courts will delay most hearings and trials because of virus precautions

The Durham County Courthouse will be pretty quiet for the next month.

The Durham County District Attorney’s Office announced Friday that starting Monday, March 16, almost all cases scheduled for the next 30 days will be postponed until no earlier than April 16 because of concerns about exposing people to the coronavirus. 

“Recognizing that hundreds of people visit the Durham County Courthouse on a daily basis, these changes are aimed at reducing traffic in the courthouse and accommodating those who are ill or at high-risk of illness due to COVID-19,” the DA’s office said in a news release.

The announcement follows directives from North Carolina Chief Justice Cheri Beasley about which cases may continue and a requirement that local clerks post notices directing people not to enter the courthouse if they’ve been exposed to the virus.

While the Durham Courthouse will remain open, only “emergency” proceedings will go on. These include bond, probable cause, and some probation hearings. The courts will continue to hear requests for restraining orders and domestic violence protective orders. And grand juries that have already been empaneled will continue to operate. 

Beasley also allowed exceptions for remotely-held proceedings and those that judges determine will not jeopardize participants’ health or safety. 

Online services, such as eFilings and payments, will also continue.

Why did prosecutors drop murder charges against a Durham teenager?

In December, Alexander Bishop’s defense attorney Allyn Sharp made a highly unusual move: she asked the judge to hold prosecutors in contempt of the court, which could put them behind bars. 

Much of the evidence against Alexander, a Durham teenager charged with killing his wealthy father Bill Bishop, had been tossed in October after a judge said the lead investigator “invent[ed] facts.” 

After that, Sharp filed the December motion to hold the investigator, Tony Huelsman, and prosecutors in contempt for failing to turn over evidence. Sharp also asked that the case be dismissed. 

Until then, the case against Alexander seemed to be proceeding as expected, pending an appeal regarding the tossed evidence. Prosecutors had given no indication they were throwing in the towel on the case. 

By Feb. 3, no hearing on the contempt motion had been scheduled. In a letter to Judge Orlando F. Hudson Jr., Sharp suggested that District Attorney Satana Deberry was dragging her feet in scheduling a hearing in which she would have to defend herself. If found guilty of contempt, Deberry, Huelsman, and Assistant District Attorney Beth Hopkins Thomas each could face up to six months in jail.  

Three days later, prosecutors dropped the charges against Alexander, citing insufficient evidence. They haven’t explained why. Could the charges have been dropped to avoid the hearing?

“The timing certainly raises questions,” said Daniel Meier, a criminal defense attorney who ran against Deberry for the district attorney seat in 2018. 

Deberry and Hopkins Thomas declined to comment when asked about the timing. Sarah Willets, a spokeswoman for the district attorney’s office, also declined to expand on why the charges were dropped, saying the office doesn’t comment on cases after they are dismissed.

Unusual moves and delays seeing evidence

Motions to hold a prosecutor in contempt are “exceedingly rare,” according to Durham criminal defense attorney Alex Charns. Meier agreed.  

Usually, if prosecutors aren’t turning over evidence, a hearing will be held to discuss why the information isn’t being provided, Meier said. 

“If it’s legitimate, everyone moves on,” Meier said. “If there is no good reason, (the evidence) is ordered turned over.”

But in the Bishop case, the typical process seemed to fall apart. 

During the initial discovery phase, Sharp noticed many items that prosecutors were supposed to hand over were missing. At a homicide status conference in April, a judge told her to list all 33 of the missing items, which Sharp emailed to prosecutors, according to her contempt motion.

But nearly a month later, she hadn’t received any of the evidence, according to her motion. And when some of it arrived, it was incomplete. In mid-May, when she got police body camera footage, four of 19 body camera footage files she requested were missing. 

Sharp asked for the missing files. She got back duplicates of ones she had already received, not the missing ones. She asked again. Those missing videos turned out to be crucial to the case. 

Huelsman misrepresented what Alexander said to first responders in the videos in search warrants in three of the four missing videos, Judge Hudson found when he tossed swaths of evidence due to Huelsman’s misconduct. 

It is evident that the District Attorney and/or Investigator Huelsman are deliberately withholding evidence which they know undermines the State’s case, providing items only after they are specifically identified as missing by undersigned counsel, and even then refusing to provide items which clearly contradict Investigator Huelsman’s sworn statements,” Sharp wrote in the motion. 

In September, Hudson ordered prosecutors to turn over the complete file. 

That still hadn’t happened by December, Sharp claimed in the Dec. 17 motion. Some of the missing evidence included financial documents from Bill’s computer. 

After unsuccessfully trying to get a hearing date in January, Sharp wrote a letter to Judge Hudson on Feb. 3 asking him to schedule a hearing on the contempt motion. Three days later, prosecutors filed a motion to drop the charges against Alexander. 

Although Meier said the timing raises questions, Charns said he didn’t want to speculate on why the charges were dropped. 

What’s next?

Alexander was already free on a $250,000 unsecured bond before the charges were dropped. 

“Alexander is grateful to finally be able to move on with his life after the tragic loss of his father and an unwarranted criminal prosecution,” Sharp said in a statement.

Prosecutors had appealed Hudson’s move to toss evidence, but that appeal has become “moot” due to the dropped charges, Willets told the 9th Street Journal. 

But charges against him could be refiled later, Willets said, although she declined to comment when asked if prosecutors would continue to pursue charges against him.

Meier said, “The charges could be refiled pretty much whenever the prosecutor wanted to do so. However, it’s very rarely done unless there is some new evidence that comes to light.”

‘Tenacious and compassionate’: How Bishop attorney Allyn Sharp defends her clients – and wins

At a hearing in September 2019, Allyn Sharp took down Tony Huelsman with ease. 

Huelsman, the lead investigator in the case against Alexander Bishop, a Durham teenager accused of killing his father, Bill Bishop, couldn’t help but stutter when Sharp grilled him about his search warrants. Prosecutors had suggested Alexander plotted to kill his wealthy father, a real estate developer with a $5.5 million estate to which Alexander was one of two heirs, after Alexander said he found him in a chair with a dog leash wrapped around his neck. 

His face often flushed red, matching his American flag tie. Sharp, with a smile and piercing blue eyes, just kept grilling him, breaking Huelsman down bit by bit. 

Huelsman had sworn in search warrants based on a purchase order that he believed $462,773 of gold bars were missing from Bill’s safe, suggesting Alexander may have had a financial motive for killing his father. But the gold was never actually missing. The purchase order shows Bill had sold the gold, not purchased it, in August 2016. 

Sharp didn’t let Huelsman’s sloppy investigating go unpunished in cross-examination at the Sept. 16 hearing

“It’s your testimony that you didn’t remember noticing the date?” Sharp asked. 

“That’s correct,” Huelsman said. 

“And that you didn’t find the date relevant at the time?” Sharp asked. 

“I did not,” Huelsman said. 

Sharp’s interrogation worked. Judge Orlando F. Hudson Jr. tossed swaths of evidence, ruling Huelsman was either “untruthful or showed a reckless disregard for the truth” in his search warrants. 

That’s just how the case against Alexander fell apart. Allyn Sharp broke it down. Prosecutors acknowledged as much when they dropped murder charges against Alexander earlier this month, citing insufficient evidence. 

Durham County District Attorney Satana Deberry, Huelsman, and another prosecutor had been facing the prospect of a hearing when Sharp charged them with failing to share evidence in the case. Sharp accused Deberry of destroying evidence and Huelsman and/or Deberry of “deliberately withholding evidence which they know undermines” the case against Alexander.

She also accused prosecutor Beth Hopkins Thomas of failing to alert the court that Huelsman allegedly perjured himself. 

Three days before prosecutors dropped the charges, Sharp had demanded a hearing on the contempt charges in a Feb. 3 letter after filing the motion in December. 

Sharp wasn’t eager to take credit for her victory, though. 

“All I did was my job, which was to protect a young innocent man from being wrongly convicted, which was made easy here by the fact the State’s case was based on falsities,” Sharp told the 9th Street Journal. 

Through the District Attorney’s office spokesperson Sarah Willets, Deberry and prosecutor Beth Hopkins Thomas declined to elaborate on why the charges were dropped, saying the office doesn’t comment on specific cases after they are dismissed.

Sharp’s nontraditional path to law 

Sharp didn’t exactly take a traditional path to becoming a criminal defense attorney. 

She received her undergraduate degree from the University of California San Diego in 1998 but didn’t know what she wanted to do with her life. So she went to South Africa, moved in with a Zulu family, and volunteered at a hospice facility for patients with AIDS. 

“I wasn’t saving lives there, but I was helping people die peacefully, which was more rewarding than I could have ever imagined,” she wrote on her website. “It was through that experience that I realized I wanted to work in a helping profession.”

She wound up in law school at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, graduating in 2011 and became a public defender in Greensboro, where she worked for two years. 

Wayne Baucino, who has been a public defender for more than two decades, immediately spotted her talent in Greensboro. She noticed the little details other attorneys might miss and was dedicated to her clients, Baucino told The 9th Street Journal.  

Just six months after becoming an attorney, she delivered the closing argument in a capital murder case. Her client won. 

Her experience in South Africa may have made her the attorney she is today.  

“If I could use two words to describe her it would be tenacious and compassionate,” Baucino said. “I’ve probably learned more from her about really caring about my clients than I had learned in all my previous years in practice.”

After two years in Greensboro, she became a public defender for felony cases in Durham for three-and-a-half years. She didn’t lose any trials as a public defender from 2011 to 2017 before moving into private practice. 

‘She will find things that I suspect other lawyers don’t find’

Sharp’s compassion for clients can be seen in her tenacity. Baucino described how she dives into a case headfirst and looks at every detail with a fine-toothed comb. 

“She will find things that I suspect other lawyers don’t find,” Baucino said. 

That’s what happened when Sharp defended Alexander, who had been charged in February 2019 with killing his father.

But Sharp was quick to point out what she — and eventually Judge Orlando F. Hudson — saw as misconduct from Huelsman in investigating the case. 

Two months after Alexander was charged, Sharp filed a meticulous 20-page motion to suppress swaths of key evidence. Huelsman made false or misleading statements to get search warrants and failed to show probable cause, Sharp argued in the April 2019 motion. 

One example of alleged misconduct was Huelsman’s claim in a search warrant that Alexander made “suspicious” online searches in light of his father’s death. Those included searches for the “price of gold per ounce,” “how to transfer bank accounts after death,” and “how to calculate the value of an estate. 

Not a great look for the defendant, right?

But Sharp pointed out a crucial detail Huelsman deleted in subsequent warrants. Those searches came after Bill’s death, not before as Huelsman had implied. 

“This investigation has been nothing more than a fishing expedition based on Investigator Huelsman’s unsupported suspicions,” Sharp wrote. 

Huelsman had claimed Alexander wanted to speak to the EMS supervisor after his father’s death “alone and away from the police” and that Alexander told the supervisor that he “wasn’t going to be upset about his father dying.” That wasn’t what body cameras said. 

Alexander Bishop only said that he wanted to speak with the EMS supervisor “in private” — not away from law enforcement — and that he “feels bad that he doesn’t necessarily want [his father] to live,” according to Hudson. 

Allyn Sharp, Bishop’s attorney, questioned Huelsman for hours over two days of hearings. Photo by Ben Leonard | The 9th Street Journal

Huelsman did not respond to a request for comment in time for publication. 

Sharp pointed out all of these things in the motion and in cross-examination, an area where she shines, according to Baucino. 

Her argument landed in court, with Hudson throwing out most of the evidence against Alexander, pending an appeal. 

In October, Hudson tossed evidence regarding the “suspicious” searches and the “missing” gold that wasn’t actually missing. Based on Sharps’ motion, the Superior Court Judge tossed Alexander’s supposedly contradictory statements about where he found Bill, along with what Alexander told first responders about how he felt about his father’s death. 

By February, prosecutors dropped murder charges against Alexander due to lack of evidence in a stunning admission of their shaky case. Without the tossed evidence, it seems the case was no longer viable. 

Sharp told the 9th Street Journal that she can’t take credit for the dismissal. 

“This case is and has always been about evidence which was falsified by the lead investigator, who was the only witness to testify before a grand jury in an unrecorded proceeding which led the grand jury to return an indictment,” Sharp said. “Alexander is innocent and should never have been charged or prosecuted.”

In photo at top, Sharp sits with Alexander Bishop at a September hearing on the case. Photo by Cameron Beach – The 9th Street Journal

Duke Hospital sends bill collectors after student rape victim

In the early morning on Dec. 13, 2018, a Duke student was sitting in her apartment’s common room in the university’s Central Campus. She was cramming for her organic chemistry final when a man she didn’t know opened the door. She said the stranger entered, threatened her with a knife, and raped her.

The student, then a sophomore, immediately went to the Duke Hospital emergency room. She wanted a sexual assault nurse examiner to collect a rape kit, an invasive evidence collection process that often takes hours and requires victims to describe the details of their assault. But that kit could provide crucial evidence for police to catch her assailant.

Police have not announced any arrests in the case. But six months after the assault, the student received a call from a number she didn’t recognize. 

“This is a call from a debt collection agency for Duke Health,” the person said, according to the student. The caller informed her that she owed hundreds of dollars for her emergency room visit for the rape examination.

“Before that, I had no idea I owed any money,” the student, who asked not to be identified, told The 9th Street Journal in an interview. “I asked them to talk to my mom because it was really traumatic and hard, but they didn’t do that. They kept calling me over and over again.”

*  *  *

Rape victims are not supposed to be charged for sexual assault exams, but the rules have loopholes.

The federal Violence Against Women Act requires that all states cover the cost of the exams. But beyond the exams themselves, each state can decide what additional hospital services they’ll cover.

North Carolina’s interpretation is called the Rape Victims Assistance Program. The program offers hospitals up to $800 for a sexual assault exam: $350 for the sexual assault nurse examiner, $250 for the hospital facility fees, and $200 for “other expenses,” including sexually transmitted disease antibiotics or pregnancy tests for the victim. Victims should never be directly billed by a hospital for the examination, according to the North Carolina Department of Public Safety.

But Molly Chadbourne, a former sexual assault nurse examiner in Durham, said victims still get charged for other services. 

“There are still fees for checking into the hospital, for getting an X-ray, or for needing other care,” she explained. “All that other stuff, patients can get charged for. Sexual assault patients definitely get bills.”

Chadbourne said some states cover all of a sexual assault victim’s other hospital bills, while others cap their payments at a certain amount. She noted the $800 cap in North Carolina and said, “$800 is nothing at a hospital.”

Though the Violence Against Women Act is supposed to protect victims from being billed after a sexual assault, many women have reported experiences like the student’s, according to accounts in news articles and websites. The practice is caused by a combination of state policy, billing mistakes, and poor communication between debt collectors and hospitals.

*  *  *

When the student went to Duke Hospital last December after being assaulted, she didn’t bring her insurance card.

“They said that was fine at the time,” she said. She was told that she wouldn’t have to pay for her sexual assault exam and that she didn’t have to worry about billing.

A few hours after the assault, police sent a Duke Alert, the university’s warning system for crime and severe weather. “A student reported that between 1 a.m. and 3 a.m. this morning… she was awakened by a white male with short brown hair and a perfume smell about him,” read the alert emailed to students, faculty, and staff. “He threatened her with a knife, put on a condom, and forced her to have sex.”

The student was embarrassed by the detailed university-wide alert. “Reading the email was really hard,” she said. “They never asked me if it was okay to send out that email, or if I even wanted to talk to the police. They just said, ‘You need to talk to this officer,’ and I did it because it felt like I had to.”

Months after the assault, she was beginning to heal. She was put in contact with the Duke Women’s Center and started seeing a psychiatrist.

Duke Hospital has an online billing system. But the student said she didn’t think she would have bills, so she never checked it. After four months, Duke Health sends all unpaid medical bills to debt collection agencies.

Then, she got the first call from a debt collector. The calls kept coming.

“We are (a) debt collector,” a voicemail message from the agency said. “This call is an attempt to collect a debt and any information obtained will be used for that purpose.”

“They’re always from a random number, and never the same number twice,” the student said. “I told them my insurance card information, and I got confirmation that everything was worked out over the summer. But they continue to call and say we owe them even more.”

When she called Duke Health to report what was happening, the billing office told her that she had an outstanding charge. She asked that the debt collectors contact her mom instead so she wouldn’t have to explain her situation to strangers. She and her mom are still working through the bill.

Her bill from her emergency room visit on Dec. 13 is labeled “Accounts with Collections Agency” in Duke’s online billing system. But she said she has difficulty determining how much she owes because the collectors have a separate billing system. 

The collectors keep calling, every few months.

The student authorized Duke Health to discuss her bills with The 9th Street Journal, but a Duke Health spokeswoman declined to comment on the student’s situation. 

*  *  *

Across the country, victims have reported getting billed by hospitals after a sexual assault.

“We definitely hear about this,” said Grace Frances, the director of community parternships at End Violence Against Women International, a nonprofit that educates professionals about sexual assault. “It is definitely still a problem.”

In 2017, a study published in the American Journal of Public Health found that the average hospital bill after a rape was $6,737. After billing insurance, sexual assault victims were left with an average of $948 to pay out of pocket. And 88% of medical records indicated that victims were charged on the day they visited the hospital.

“Oftentimes, the charges that they’re seeing aren’t the cost of the rape kit,” said Ashley Tennessee, the lead researcher on the study and an assistant professor at the Medical University of South Carolina. “Most people who are sexually assaulted have additional costs. They might want tests completed, or treatments for physical abuse.”

Tennessee sees the problem as twofold: Victims are sometimes mistakenly charged for their rape kit exam. But more often, they’re billed for treatment related to their sexual assault. 

If victims check into the emergency room, they can also be charged a facility fee. Duke itself acknowledges that going to its emergency room will cost patients “at least $1,000.” 

Asked if Duke Health has a policy about charging for sexual assault exams, a spokeswoman declined to comment.

Tennessee recommends that states broaden their policies to reimburse hospitals for more than just the sexual assault exam. She also hopes that hospitals will charge sexual assault victims through a separate billing process to ensure that no mistakes are made.

“Someone has to pay for it,” she said. “At this point, it’s the victim.”

*  *  *

For sexual assault survivors who have been billed by hospitals in North Carolina, there is another option: the crime victim compensation fund. Victims of violent crime can apply for medical compensation up to $30,000, including physical treatment and future counseling. 

But there are bureaucratic hurdles that can be challenging for survivors of sexual assault. To submit a claim, a victim must provide a police report. That means they have to report their rape to police before they’re eligible for the compensation.

“I think you should be able to come into the emergency room and say, ‘I was sexually assaulted, I want to get medical care,’ and get that for free,” Chadbourne said. “But that’s not how it works.”

Even for victims who are eligible to apply to the compensation fund, there are still barriers. They have to collect documents and get them notarized before submitting their application, and will likely wait months to receive compensation. And in the meantime, they’ll still be billed for their sexual assault exam visit.

“It’s unacceptable,” Frances said. “You’re telling victims that you don’t care what it means to them when they get a bill in the mail, and their family sees it.”

“It’s putting the responsibility on the victim to get themselves reimbursed,” Chadbourne said. “And that’s hard.”

For the Duke student, it is also confusing.

“We’re unsure about what the bill is for at this point, because we’ve already paid so much,” she said.

She also feels betrayed by the institution that failed to protect her while on campus. 

“I hated their whole response,” she said. “They just sent us to a collection agency.”

9th Street Journal reporter Cameron Beach can be reached at  cameronbeach6@gmail.com

BISHOP CASE DISMISSED

In a stunning acknowledgement of their shaky case, Durham prosecutors have dropped charges against Alexander Bishop, a teenager accused of killing his father, a wealthy real estate developer.

Alexander had been charged with the 2018 death of his father, Bill Bishop, but prosecutors dropped the charges Thursday.

A court document signed by prosecutor Beth Hopkins Thomas said the charges were being dismissed because of “insufficiency of the evidence at this time.” A spokeswoman for the Durham District Attorney’s Office declined to comment Thursday afternoon.

A court filing said prosecutors were dismissing charges because of “insufficiency of the evidence at this time.”

Alexander’s attorney Allyn Sharp said in a news release, “Alexander is grateful to finally be able to move on with his life after the tragic loss of his father and an unwarranted criminal prosecution.”

The stunning move by the prosecutor came after Judge Orlando F. Hudson Jr. had tossed swaths of evidence in October due to misconduct from the lead investigator, Tony Huelsman. Sharp had recently filed a motion to hold Durham County District Attorney Satana Deberry, Huelsman, and another prosecutor in contempt for failing to comply with discovery in the case. Sharp also accused Deberry of destroying evidence. 

Alexander had told first responders he found his father in his Hope Valley home on April 18, 2018 with a dog leash wrapped around his neck, and the family dog Winston still attached. Alexander immediately called his mother, Sharon Bishop (then divorced from Bill). He told his mother how he found Bill, and Sharon told him to call 911. 

In that 911 call, he said he found his father unresponsive. ““I think my dad is dead,” he said. “I think my dog got his [leash] wrapped around his throat and his face is purple.”

Bill, a wealthy real estate developer, died three days later at Duke Hospital. Durham’s police investigations unit was told not to respond to the scene because “the circumstances did not warrant investigation,” Sharp wrote in a news release, but an investigation began three days later because Alexander was the only person in the home at the time, according to the release. 

Investigators quickly focused on Alexander, a student at Durham Academy. Police search warrants suggested he had plotted to kill his father. Alexander was indicted in February 2019. He and his brother Jefferson are the heirs to his $5.5 million estate. 

Sharp said Thursday that Bill’s death was a tragic accident and that his autopsy showed blockages of up to 80% in his coronary arteries. She noted that an apparent cardiac event occurred “during or after” the dog’s leash got tangled around his neck.

As part of a series exploring potential causes for Bill’s death, the 9th Street Journal spoke with four forensics experts, who were doubtful Bill died of a heart attack. Three said there was no evidence of one, and the fourth said it was unlikely.

“There’s no evidence of a cardiac event. The defense is just trying to fish,” said Bill Smock, police surgeon for the Louisville Metro Police Department and a staff member of the Training Institute for Strangulation Prevention in San Diego.

(In photo above, Alexander Bishop talks with his attorney Allyn Sharp during a September hearing. Photo by Cameron Beach | The 9th Street Journal)